Leadership: Not Just a Line on Your Resume


by Alex Shapanka

Leadership is not just another line on your resume. It’s not something that you can just address during interviews to give your candidacy more credence. It is in fact quite rare to come across great leadership. Yet for some reason, we think this campus is teaming with leaders. Probably because we hand out titles like they’re bin candy on sale.

Having a title next to our name doesn’t mean diddly. DSG president, Vice President of Education for DPS or DUU Major Attractions chair are all just signifiers of responsibility. Inconsequential words. It is the quality of our performance that matters.

Permit me a personal example. I have been heavily involved in Duke University Union since freshman year, following the guidance of others and serving in various leadership capacities. And while I generally enjoyed my experience, I have felt stark differences in the organization from year to year. Both the level of camaraderie and strength of our programming have fluctuated, and I would dare to say they are correlated.

There is not a singular path to leadership. Equally successful leaders can have divergent styles. Every leader, however, needs to create a sense of cohesion within his or her group. The years I felt DUU offered the students the best programming were those when the organization’s members felt a sense of collective identity. We had great relationships with each other and understood our purpose. We focused on our mission of providing “social, recreational, cultural, and educational activities for the students.”

But leadership is not a nine to five job. It is a way of existence. One cannot pick and choose when to be a leader. During the personal checks concert, I saw one student blow an air horn next to someone’s ear. The latter reacted aggressively, getting in the guilty party’s face. Before I could respond, a random third party intervened, breaking up the would-be fight before anything had a chance to happen. That intercessor recognized a problem, chose to act and maintained the peace. He was confident in his mediation, suggesting he has one essential trait for all leaders – an understanding of one’s authentic or true identity.

Knowing yourself doesn’t mean listing the labels others use to describe you. It involves a lot of serious introspection. Asking yourself, what are your vulnerabilities? What are your talents? What are your relationships like? What are your values? What are your goals?

Answering similar questions will help provide greater self-awareness, which offers us the chance to further our strengths and to address our shortcomings. We become aware of how we interact with others and can choose to improve those relations. We become better people and by consequence better leaders.

While Duke offers some services and programs that start us on this path, there’s more the university can do. Campus is plagued with an endless stream of complaints about culture. Yet all of the “solutions” suggest increased dialogue and actions that occur on levels that exclude the general population – the ones who live and determine the culture. It’s time we get everyone on the same page. And we can do it while developing the real leaders we need, the ones we’ve claimed to have but in fact lack.

Scrap the current concept of the freshman seminar and writing 100 (20 for those of us not in the class of 2016). They serve as an introduction to discussion-based academics and a chance to explore our interests. But how much did I actually learn from my course on post-apocalyptic futures? We have 32 other credits that allow us to explore.

Replace them with two courses. One, a leadership seminar, which would serve as a time for students to begin understanding their own principles. The transition to college can be tough, and there is a lot of pressure to conform to the current social and group norms. Think of how much students change from first to second semester of college. A course on high impact leadership would help the freshmen be more assured in their identity and resist changing for the sake of feeling comfortable because they would already be comfortable with themselves.

Two, a course that makes us cognizant of other students’ experiences. Maybe something similar to Common Ground or Stanford’s orientation program “Faces of Community,” which forces students to witness and share their thoughts on the diverse identities on campus. It would be a chance for Dukies to understand each other and be more informed members of our community. Sit fifteen students down in a room and have them talk about relational issues. It would a heuristic approach to learning. Because I would be learning from my peers, it would seem more human than theoretical academics. We’d be conscious of experiences beyond our own.

Combined these courses would help students know themselves and their peers better. They would challenge our identities and push us to improve our character. We would have a campus of leaders ready to make change rather than just talk about it.

Leading well is hard, but Duke is filled with individuals with endless potential. By that I don’t mean we need to wait for a title. Forget it. It’s not necessary. We can incite impact from any role. We just need the right mentor and learning.